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chapter 4

“What can I say? I got carried away.”


Someone laid down a four, and Cora screamed for Abi to get it. She launched herself across the table and nearly collided with Austin, also trying to grab the same card. Abi squealed as she pulled back the four, triumphant.


“Knock out!” Cora called as she slapped away a pile in front Austin, who looked ready to pick it back up off the floor. He took a few quick gulps from his cup before continuing.


As they played the loud game, the tension and worry of being at her first party loosened its grip on Abi. Now that she was out with Cora, she realized it wasn’t that much of a to-do. At least, not if the parties Cora usually went to were like this. Abi could imagine her and Cora doing this exact thing together in college—hanging out with a few drinks and new friends.


Shelly slapped Theo’s cards to the floor and he fake-cried while drinking.


“Game!” Shelly and Austin yelled together as Shelly picked up the last card and slammed it down in front of her.


“No! Agh, you wench!” Theo banged his fist playfully on the table, almost toppling it over.


“Let’s see … Definitely you, Theo. And …” Abi’s heart thumped when Shelly’s gaze drifted over her and Cora. “Austin.”


It wasn’t until two shots were laid out in front of the boys that she understood what they were singled out for.


“Cheers.” Theo raised the shot glass before knocking it back. “Woah, momma!” He cringed, setting the glass back down.


Abi was relieved when no one judged him for his reaction. While she hadn’t expected people to take shots like they did in the movies, where it was obviously water or tea, she was nervous about drinking something so strong in front of strangers.


The game was easier than she thought it would be. If you made three sets of three-of-a-kind before the person to your left had any, you shouted, “Knock out!” and they drank for three seconds before continuing. If the person to your left had at least one set, you knocked one of them off the table and they drank for three seconds. The game was over when the last card found a set. The person with the most sets won.


“Next round?” Shelly gathered and stacked the cards into one large pile as the rest of them searched for those thrown to the ground.


Jesse appeared next to Abi and whispered something into Myra’s ear. She got up and headed downstairs and he took her spot, close enough to Abi that their arms were touching. She was glad the table was so small.


“Only if the dream team splits up.” Theo eyed Abi. “Unless you two agree to each drink a shot if your team gets called out.”


Abi didn’t like the sound of that, but they stuck together anyway. The next round went on longer than the previous one, and Abi and Cora nearly won, only needing one more card to complete a set that would have tied them with Jesse.


“Team Two-for-the-price-of-one, obviously,” Jesse said, pointing at Abi and Cora. “And Shelly.” He angled his head as he said her name, the corner of his lips pulling up slightly.


He was flirting, Abi realized. It was odd seeing this, a side of Jesse she had never glimpsed at Cora’s house. Were the two of them dating?


The three girls picked up the shot glasses. Abi’s heart hammered hard in her chest and she knew the entire table must have been watching her. The liquor smelled spiced but she drank it all in one gulp, not allowing herself to think much about it. She grimaced, a whole-body shiver passing from her fingertips to her toes.


Cora doubled over laughing at her, and Abi was surprised she wasn’t embarrassed. She laughed too, leaning forward to catch her breath until the bench nearly tipped forward.


“I’m throwing in the towel.” Jesse scooted his chair back and stalked over to the bucket with drinks. “I have to drive these two home.” He pulled out a bottle of water from the cooler and disappeared back down the stairs.


They played two more rounds, and Abi felt light and warm despite small trails of her breath floating in front of her. The temperature must have steadily dropped as they’d played, but the fire kept most of it at bay. Three hours ago these people had been strangers, but now she somehow felt like they had shared something. It was clear that this group was close, and for a moment, she let herself believe she belonged there with this hodgepodge of people.


“Ready?” Jesse’s voice was loud in Abi’s ear and both she and Cora jumped.


They chuckled over their reactions as they got up. Abi’s legs were heavy and the world spun with slowness. She blinked and focused her eyes, driving the spin away.


“Bye, everyone!” Cora called out, giving a single wave that spanned her arm’s reach.


“Bye!” Abi turned and met Jesse’s gaze, and he smiled but it didn’t reach his eyes.


She winced as a pang shot through her skull.


“You okay?” he asked.


She nodded, and then Cora was dragging her down the steps and to the car.


“I gave him your number, by the way,” Cora said, laughing. Abi looked at Jesse but he hadn’t heard. She wanted him to have her number, not Austin.


He handed them each a bottle of water once they reached the car, and Abi laid her head on Cora’s shoulder as they rode back home. There was no music and the quiet nearly put Abi to sleep. The car’s headlights eerily lit up the trees on either side of the road, but something about it was comforting. Like a constant, never-changing view of life coming from the darkness.

They made it back to Abi’s house, and she tried to climb the ladder as quietly as she could, but part of her didn’t care.


“Did you have fun?” Cora whispered up to her as Jesse moved the ladder back to the garage.


Abi looked out the window but couldn’t make out Cora’s face in the dark. “Yes. It was the perfect celebration.” Her words sounded sluggish to her own ears.


“Goodnight!” Cora disappeared and Abi collapsed onto her bed.


It was 3 a.m. She set her alarm and kicked the boots off her feet, her heavy breathing nearly putting her to sleep.


Until she realized it wasn’t her breathing that was loud. A rasping breath sharpened her senses. It had come from inside her room. Something shuffled. She shot up, fingers struggling before finding the switch to her lamp.


It was Ben, mumbling under his breath.


“Jesus. You scared the shit out of me,” she whispered.


He stood there, eyes open, gazing at nothing.


“Ben?” She looked toward her door, worried her dad might hear them and see her with makeup all over her face and dressed in Cora’s clothes. “What are you doing?”


His body stiffened and a strained noise escaped him before he relaxed again. He turned away and she followed him into the hall, his door clicking closed behind him.

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